Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 668
The events of “Butcher Bird” take place during a single afternoon. A family sets out to visit their new neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Garfield. Mr. Garfield is an Englishman, whose talk of scientific farming methods and making the desert bloom has reached the family. The father clearly has no desire to visit them, but the mother wants to be neighborly, so they go.
The mother’s and boy’s experiences during this visit are vastly different from the father’s. For the mother and her son, the Garfields’ home is a place of wonder, beauty, and discovery. There is a rug in the house, there is music, and outside, in this barren country, are trees that Mr. Garfield has been trying to grow from cuttings taken down at Old-Man-on-His-Back, a nearby spot where a creek comes out of the hills. To the father, however, the Garfield home represents everything that he is not, so he is scarcely able to behave pleasantly.
The visit gets off to a bad start because the father is determined not to like Mr. Garfield. When Mrs. Garfield serves lemonade without ice, the father’s face reveals his contempt and disdain; he has just spent two weeks digging an icehouse in order to have ice-cold water and beer during the hot season.
Mr. Garfield then shows the boy his gramophone. As the delighted boy inspects this curious machine, his father sharply commands him to keep his hands off; Mr. Garfield, kindly insisting that the boy cannot harm the gramophone, undermines the father’s authority. Soon the father is moodily looking out the window, and tension grows in the room. Realizing this, Mr. Garfield gropes somewhat helplessly for something to say, some way of reconnecting with his guests. He turns to the boy, asking him questions about his life on his family farm and what he does with his days. When the talk turns to hunting, Mr. Garfield leaves the room for a moment and returns with a .22-caliber gun, which he offers to the excited boy. Mr. Garfield looks to the boy’s mother for permission; the boy looks to his father, who nods his approval. The gift is given conditionally, however: Mr. Garfield makes the boy promise to shoot only at predators, not at birds or prairie dogs. What about butcher birds, the boy asks. The boy’s mother explains to her host that butcher birds, also called shrikes, kill all sorts of things just for the fun of it and then hang their victims on the post or barbed wire of a fence. Mr. Garfield’s response is significant: “Shoot all the shrikes you see. A thing that kills for the fun of it.” Leaving the sentence unfinished, he shakes his head, and his voice gets solemn.
As soon as the family drives away from the Garfields’ farm, the father roars his laughter at Garfield’s pacifism, his trees, and his gentleness, as he scorns and ridicules the man. His scorn turns to incredulity when he realizes that his wife likes this neighbor, and then to rage when he senses that his wife’s attitude toward Garfield is a judgment against him. They argue, their anger escalating, each determined to have the last word. The boy is on the porch with both his parents, the father helping him clean the gun, which has been neglected. A final, calculated comment from the mother fuels the dying argument and the father’s dwindling anger. Enraged, he takes aim at a sparrow scratching for bugs in the yard. His wife warns him not to shoot the helpless bird; the boy yells, “No.” Still the father, quietly mimicking Mr. Garfield, pulls the trigger. Drawn to the dead bird, the boy picks it up, getting blood on his fingers, and asks his mother what he should do with it. Likening the father to the butcher birds, the mother tells the boy to leave the sparrow there, that his father will want to hang it on the fence.
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